Enabling Behavior and The Addictions

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

“Shopping Addiction”

This vignette is based on an episode of the television program “Shopping Addiction.”


“A young unemployed woman spends vast amounts of money on clothes and make up. She lives with and borrows this money from her mother as well as using her credit cards. Her mother tires of this and throws her out of her home but with the credit cards. She gets room in a hotel that she cannot afford where she continues her spending ways. She gets referred to a psychologist who comes to treat her at the hotel she is living at. He notices that the room is filled with items she has bought that she cannot afford. She resists the psychologist telling her to sell these things so that she can repay her mother. He gets her a job at a mall but, instead of keeping the job, she shops again. She to refuses work because she feels very entitled. The psychologist cuts off treatment and learns that mother takes her back into her home and is once again paying for everything.”

There is probably no more frustrating a thing for a person than to witness someone engaging in enabling behavior. Generally speaking, enabling refers to problematic behavior in which someone has the intention to help but, in fact, perpetuates a problem. In this situation, the enabler takes responsibility and blame, or makes accommodations for a person’s harmful behavior, often with the best of intentions. In effect, the individual with the problem does not have take any responsibility and is shielded from awareness of the harm he or she is causing.

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In the case above, the mother was the enabler. She enabled by giving her daughter all the money she had as well as allowing her to use her credit cards. She even allowed her to use the credit cards to pay for her hotel room after she threw her out. In the end, the mother allowed her to return home and continue her endless spending. The mother’s enabling behavior prevented the daughter to ever gain any awareness of how dysfunctional her behavior was. In effect, the enabler never allows the problematic person to take responsibility for their self.

Why would someone fill the role of enabler? The reasons are many and complex. In cases like the one cited above, people will enable a loved one out of fear that allowing them to face consequences is too punishing. This is often heard in drug addiction situations. Here, the enabler cares for the addict out of fear that facing consequences could cause death. The enabler feels guilty for the life and well being of the addict. It’s the enabler who feels guilt rather than the addict who may be stealing from the enabler in order to support the addiction. Ultimately, there is little or no motivation for the addict to stop and seek help.

There are many dark sides to these types of stories. One of those is that, under the guise of “helping” the enabler is supporting behaviors that often lead to death. These types of enablers are, themselves, unaware of how destructive their own behavior is. They are so engrossed by the life of the addict that they lack an insight into themselves.

The enabler allows the addict continue their destructive behavior by giving them room and board in their own home, providing them with food, giving them unlimited amounts of money. In fact, the enabler often ends up facing bankruptcy as a result of giving so much money. The enabler also is blind to the addiction, failing to see what is happening in their own home and right in front of them. In their denial, they do not believe that their loved one is addicted. The enabler often justifies this behavior by insisting that they help in the hope that the addict will eventually stop what they are doing.

In sum, by not allowing the addict to face consequences, they can be in denial about the addiction and the effect it is having.

Are you an enabler? If you want to try to answer this question go to About.com


where you will find a self help quiz. Answer the twelve questions and you will get an idea of whether or not you are.

If you are an enabler or live with someone with an addiction, one of the best places to go to are the Al-Anon Family Groups.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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